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Q&A: Wide Open Road director on Aussie car inventions, our electric future

Recently we spoke to Paul Clarke, the man behind the recent ABC documentary series on the history of the car in Australia, Wide Open Road, about great Aussie motoring inventions and whether our beloved four-wheeled steeds have a future.


Recently we spoke to Paul Clarke, the man behind the recent ABC documentary series on the history of the car in Australia, Wide Open Road, about great Aussie motoring inventions and whether our beloved four-wheeled steeds have a future.

Paul Clarke in a Holden Monaro
(Credit: ABC)

CNET Australia: We loved your documentary series, Wide Open Road. In it, you mention that the ute and the closed-roof coupe were two key Aussie automotive inventions. Were there any others that didn't make the final cut into the series?

Paul Clarke: Yeah, there were a few interesting ones. The powered winch was one, one that's really needed off-road. Another one is the rear-view mirror.

I can see why we'd come up with the winch, given the vast amounts of unsealed road in Australia ...

Shocking roads, even [until fairly late] the Hume Highway needed a winch ...There's also, I believe, the cat's eye, which lets you know when you're falling asleep [and straying across lanes].

Did you find out more about how they came about?

No. We were informed of these by one of our experts, Petr Davis, but unfortunately these types of shows are like trying to cram a doona into a scotch bottle. You've got all this information, and you're just trying to find a way to tell all it in an interesting way for our broad audience.

What do you believe is the greatest Australian automotive invention?

[Without a single moment's hesitation] The [1960s] Repco Brabham.

Cars, nowadays, both race and road cars, are a lot more complex and expensive to engineer and build. Do you think that Australia can have such a big impact or influence on the world stage again?

Look, I think Jack Brabham gives you hope that you can have an Aussie backyard mechanic who conquers the world. In America and Europe, you have this enormous volume of people, and that makes a big difference.

We never had the wealthy industrialists laying down the railways, like they did in America, or the engineering prowess of companies like Mercedes-Benz or Renault, but we did have a lot of outback do-it-yourself mavericks. And, to me, Jack Brabham is the apotheosis of all those people. I think the way he conquered Ferrari and the like in the world of motor racing is the closest we'll ever have to Neil Armstrong.

You mention one of his pranks in the series: when he walked on to the track with a cane and a fake beard. Were there any other notable pranks he played?

There's heaps. John Cooper [the owner of Jack's first racing team in Europe] called him Blackjack, and he kept up this banter that Jack was Aboriginal, and that he hadn't learned to use the knife and fork yet.

I think this type of humour helped them to deal with the fact that over the course of their careers, over 30 of their friends and fellow racers died in hideous automobile accidents.

I asked Jack, "What happened when your car caught fire at Indianapolis?" And he said, "I was doing 210mph [338km/h] down the straight, and all of a sudden the car caught fire, so I went to get out." I then asked, "What were you wearing at the time?" To which he replied, "A pair of King Gee overalls." He managed to get out of the car, but then the fire stopped, so he got back into the car and continued racing.

In the last episode, there's quite a bit of focus on the introduction of the random breath test in the 1980s. Were we one of the first countries to introduce this?

Yes, one of the first; we may have even been the first. What's unusual is that we made it compulsory. In England, they never made it compulsory, and in America it took ages because it, supposedly, infringed on your human rights and the rights of the individual.

The fact that we did, and halved the number of road deaths, and then halved it again, proves that Australians were willing to give back a little of their freedom if it was for the common good. In 1975, the fatality rate was around 10,000 when we had four million cars on our roads, and now it's dropped to one quarter of that these days, even though there's now 16 million cars.

Another thing you mention in the series is that driver education back in the '70s, and before that, was pretty poor. Even today, it's pretty easy for us to get and keep a licence when you compare us to some European countries. Why do you think we haven't improved driver education to that next level?

I think we're managed badly, and that our politicians don't think long term. When you look at Germany, they're allowed to do three times our legal limit, but their road toll is three times lower than ours. The politicians there really look after their population, and think about what it takes to sustain a modern future society.

Generally speaking, our politicians think shorter term, and are a bit more self serving. If you look back at Federation, there were six colonies, and they each had their own railway networks with different rail gauges. And I think the rail-gauge issue shows that for a long time, it didn't occur to them to unify.

I really think that it was rev-heads that united this country, which is ironic in a way because they just wanted to be alone on the wide open road.

In the first episode, you talk about Francis Birtles and his "anything goes" spirit that led him to successfully cross the country from west to east in a motor car in 1912. Do you think that there's much of that left in our car culture?

Yeah, I think there is. Whenever we mentioned Peter Brock's name, you could see a fire light up in people's eyes. Not only was he a great driver, but he loved to drive, too.

And whilst we were filming and researching Wide Open Road, we met so many generous people that were willing to help — more so than in any other project I've worked on.

Even the grey nomad phenomena proves that people just want to get out there, onto the road, and explore this country of ours.

Now that airline travel is so cheap, do you think that this has altered our desire to get in the car and travel for miles upon miles?

Yeah, I do. I think in the '60s, it was a family rite to get stuck in the back seat watching the Blue Mountains or Gippsland pass. I don't think that type of culture is so prevalent anymore.

But I also think we've become a profligate society, and we intake so much stimulus nowadays; it would be good if we could go back to those car-based holidays. And, as a society, I think, we'll find it hard to let cars go.

The whole world is turning on carbon and dirty energy, and one day, probably 10 years from now, petrol-powered cars will be going the way of the dinosaurs. While the rest of the world is heading there, we're very reluctant to join the crowd. No matter what's fuelling them, cars will still play a big part in Australia's future.

Do you think there's a need and a desire for locally engineered and designed cars?

Yes, but who knows what form it'll be? It could be like what Better Place are trying to do now with electric cars that are tied to the grid. When you drive your car to work and plug the car in, it could feed into the grid and help supply the city's electricity. I still think that's a long way off, though.

While some of us are maverick pioneers, most of us are pretty slow to be drawn into the future.

What do you think the future of the car is in Australia? Do you think it will become just an item we use on the weekends, or will we still rely on it for the daily commute?

We'll be dependent on the car for a long time to come. We've designed our cities around cars, more so than even the United States, which is saying something.

If you had to pick a machine which summarised European civilisation, you would say the ship. Similarly, for America it would be the gun, while for Australia it would be the car.

In the outer suburbs of Ingleburn, Doonside, Babylon and so forth, you have to have a car to survive and get to work. There are just so many places that are off the bus and train lines, and in reality our public transport system is third rate compared to many other developed countries.

Even though our take up of hybrids is so low at the moment, I think our preferred drivetrain will be, in the future, electric.

Why is public transport so lacking in Australia's major cities?

I can only put that down to politicians and their reaction to the moment. Basically, we love our cars, the politicians saw that and made it as easy as possible for us to use them.

John Howard was the greatest surfer of the spleen, and he understood how people felt that day. While on the other hand Paul Keating came up with grand future plans, and while we can look back and appreciate them now, at the time we considered him to be a black prince.

In the 1800s, the founding fathers realised they needed a subway system in New York City, and the same thing, too, in London, while it's still something we haven't got on top of yet.

If you ended up as prime minister or a benevolent dictator, and your one focus was cars and transport, what would you do?

V8s for everyone! Maybe I'm not the best person to ask. But it's possibly too late; all those suburbs in Canberra, the roundabout capital of the world, they're all done, they're all there and it could be too hard to make a public transport system that works.

My feeling is that you'd have to try, as best you could, to amalgamate cities and their transport grids. Great cities, like London, New York and Paris, have got that figured. For instance, I live 10 miles from the city, yet if I want to attend a meeting at 9am in the morning , I have to leave at 6.30. It's insane, but we all have to suffer that so we can enjoy the freedom of the wide open road on the weekend.

It says something about us. On the one hand, we're really free, but on the flipside we're possessed by the dream of being free and it's put us in a prison.

Paul, thanks for your time.

Thank you.

Wide Open Road has screened on ABC television, but is still available on the corporation's catch-up service, iView. The series is now also available on DVD.